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Pollock (or not)

If the paintings are genuine, Azusa Pacific University stands to gain a windfall. However, that's quite an 'if.'

September 30, 2008|Suzanne Muchnic | Times Staff Writer

As EXECUTIVE vice president of Azusa Pacific University, David Bixby fields lots of calls. But one that came through last March was a stunner. Howard Kazanjian, a film producer and university trustee, had come across a trove of paintings by a giant of 20th century art that might be donated to the evangelical Christian university.

The good news was that the works were said to have been made by Jackson Pollock, the Abstract Expressionist known for his "drip and splash" style. The bad news: This was yet another batch of undocumented paintings attributed to the artist.

The paintings belong to Erich Gabor Neumeth, 89, who lives in a rural area near Lodi. Kazanjian and a colleague, documentary filmmaker Russ Turner, learned about the artworks while trying to develop a film about Neumeth and help him with his memoirs. Neumeth, a German Luftwaffe pilot in World War II who changed sides and became a British and American intelligence agent, says that he eventually established himself as an art restorer in New York and that he received a group of paintings ascribed to Pollock in the 1960s as payment of a debt.

Neumeth makes no claims about the authenticity of the artworks and declines to say precisely how many came into his possession. But after decades of keeping the paintings in storage and selling a few privately, he wants to put some of them out in the world for the public to see and for experts to judge. He also wants to sell them, partly to finance his book and the proposed movie.

"I'm not a dealer. I'm not a collector. I'm a victim," Neumeth said in heavily accented English -- one of his many languages -- during a conversation in his living room, decorated with figurative works he has painted and a large abstraction attributed to Pollock. A colorful character who looks younger than his years but complains about his bad back, he squirms in a big leather chair while responding to questions. "People ask me, do I believe these are Pollocks? I believe things when I prove them. But whoever painted these -- Pollock or Mickey Mouse -- this is as close as it gets to Pollock."

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Fundraising potential

After Bixby got the call from Kazanjian, he knew he had lots to learn about Pollock. Charged with raising awareness of and funds for a university dedicated to putting "God first," he's no art expert. But almost immediately he saw an opportunity.

And the suggestion of donated artworks that might be sold, with proceeds divided between the donor and the university, evolved into plans for a full exhibition.

"It's a great educational opportunity for our students," Bixby said. "It could be a beautiful thing." And, of course, an exhibition itself could bring in money. Pollock's finest paintings have been sold for up to $140 million apiece, but the market for undocumented works ascribed to the artist is shaky if not nonexistent. Still, Neumeth was willing to give the university a portion of sales proceeds. What would they have to lose?

To become involved with paintings that may or not be Pollocks is to enter the uncertain territory of modern and contemporary art imitations and forgeries. Unlike the Andy Warhol Foundation, which has established the Andy Warhol Art Authentication Board to weed out pretenders, the Pollock-Krasner Foundation (named for Pollock and his wife, artist Lee Krasner) is primarily a grant-making organization and does not authenticate works of art. The International Foundation for Art Research in New York offers authentication services accepted by Pollock authorities, such as New York art dealer Joan Washburn, but the process is costly and highly selective.

And Pollock problems abound. In 2003, the discovery of 32 small paintings labeled as Pollock experiments and put in storage by the artist's friend, Herbert Matter, who died in 1984, led to a fierce debate about their authenticity. With experts firmly pitted against each other, the issue may never be resolved.

And "Who the #$&% Is Jackson Pollock?" -- a 2006 film about a truck driver's quest to prove that a painting she bought for $5 in a San Bernardino thrift shop is a Pollock -- has added a popular sideshow to the scholarly drama.

For Bixby, however, the benefits seem to outweigh the risks. So the first person he called was Azusa Pacific President Jon R. Wallace, who oversees a university with a broad academic program, about 8,100 students and an expansive campus 26 miles northeast of downtown Los Angeles. "I said, 'I just want you to know I'm going down this road,' " Bixby recalled. "And he said, 'I trust you. Go for it.' "

Six months later, the university is gearing up for "Revisiting Pollock," an exhibition of 17 paintings attributed to the artist. And "attributed" is the key word to an exhibition with a conundrum at its core.

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